Life is Rhythm


To be published by Oxford University Press in April, 2011


AT RUSH HOUR, Times Square subway station in New York City is one of the busiest places on the planet. Ten or twelve subway lines converge here, and a shuttle train connects Times Square with Grand Central station, another major hub. Thousands of people pass through the station, walking or running upstairs and downstairs, elbowing other people and being elbowed by them. The station has a large hallway where buskers play, sing, and dance for the entertainment of the passersby.

Most people here tonight are in a hurry, trying to make it home after a long day’s toil. But you have all the time in the world. You’re here to study humanity, to marvel at the richness of individual behavior, and to learn what makes people tick—almost literally, as you’ll see. Imagine that you're invisible and untouchable; that you can be anywhere in the station without anyone pushing and trampling you; and that you can look at anyone without being noticed.

An elderly man with a military bearing strides by. His gait reveals a lot about his character, his upbringing, his convictions and suppositions: HUP, two, three, four, HUP, two, three, four . . . A young girl skips by in the opposite direction. She’s the embodiment of youthful insouciance, and her movements are infused with the folk rhythms she danced to in her afternoon class: ta-TUM, tee-TUM, ta-TEE-tee, tee-TUM!

A woman in high heels wobbles through the crowd, bumping into people and almost falling down every three steps: TUM-tee-tee. TUM-tee-tee. TUM-tee-tee. A blind man walks by, his steps lopsided and uncertain. His guide dog, however, is a model of smooth regularity. If you had to ascribe a tempo mark to the dog, you’d say “andante moderato senza rubato, poco forte sempre.”

A voice comes over the public-announcement system: “Theptwntwozzdld.” Blaming the station’s poor acoustics and lousy loudspeakers, you despair of ever understanding those useless announcements. But not long afterward another person talks into a microphone somewhere deep inside the station. “The uptown 2 train is delayed. We apologize for the inconvenience.” The first speaker had rushed and jumbled her words, letting her voice rise and dip too far, too soon. The second speaker stretched her vowels slightly, put a tiny space between some of the words, and modulated her voice as if declaiming a poem by William Carlos Williams:

The uptown

two train

is delayed.


We apologize

for the in-


You find yourself next to two men talking earnestly, and you overhear their conversation. You can’t explain how, but you suspect that they, too, are speaking poetry:

“I thought I’d never see my wife again.”

“I’m glad the two of you made up and . . . stuff.”

“You bet. Without Irene I’m not myself.”

You go down to one of the platforms, just missing the Brooklyn-bound N train. You hear the music it makes: ka-ta-CHAM, ka-ta-CHAM, ka-ta-CHAM, ka-ta-! And you wonder, what happened to the last “CHAM”? The “CHAM” was a downbeat to the ka-ta’s upbeat. The last downbeat was amputated, yet you could feel it ever so clearly in your imagination. (You’ll find out more about amputated downbeats in Chapter 9, “Opposing the Grid.”)

Climbing the stairs back to the big hallway, you alternate covering one step with the right foot, then two steps at once with the left one, giving a good push with the right foot so that the left can cover the greater distance. It creates a pleasant asymmetrical pattern: short-LONG, short-LONG. Or rather, upbeat-DOWNBEAT, upbeat-DOWNBEAT. Or still, preparation-STRESS, preparation-STRESS, where preparation corresponds to the push with the right foot, and stress the landing on the left foot.

In the hallway, four teenagers dance to a tune coming from a boom box, leaping and gyrating with incredible virtuosity. Their words, sounds, and gestures all coincide in a swirl of rhythm and life. A suburbanite moves to the song’s beat, irrepressibly infected by the teenagers’ verve. But the poor woman looks perfectly ridiculous. Her head and neck move as if disconnected from her spine, and her timing is off. She’s trying to follow the kids’ rhythm, and there are two things wrong with it: “trying” and “following,” neither of which the kids themselves would ever abide.

Rhythm is present in every single aspect of every scene you have witnessed. It’s impossible to define rhythm precisely, but we can make a list of some of its constituting elements. Rhythm is time subdivided. The subdivisions can be regular or irregular, and delimitated or not by markers such as beats and measures. The subdivisions can be organized in groups of varying sizes, and the groups themselves can be organized into a hierarchy. In rhythm there’s speed, duration, pacing, and timing. There exist different kinds of rhythmic energy, combined into patterns of infinite variety. The train’s ka-ta-CHAM is one such pattern; the HUP-two-three-four of the Army man, a different pattern.

Patterns of preparation, stress, and release infuse speech, song, locomotion, and every human activity. We’ll call the “CHAM” of the train’s ka-ta-CHAM a stress, and the two sounds that precede it preparation. The Army man’s “HUP” is a stress and the two-three-four that follow a release. When you climb the steps pushing strongly with one leg and landing firmly on the other, you use a pattern of preparation and stress.

We’ll borrow a few terms from the vocabulary of poetics and call a self-contained rhythmic grouping a foot. The pattern of “preparation-STRESS” is an iambic foot, the pattern of “STRESS-release” a trochaic foot. You can also refer to them simply as an iamb and a trochee. (The next chapter, “Prosody: The Secrets of Rhythm,” will develop this vocabulary and put it in context.)

The men you overheard spoke phrases containing five units of “preparation-STRESS.” They don’t realize it, but they’re talking in iambic pentameter.

“I THOUGHT | I’d NE- | ver SEE | my WIFE | a-GAIN.”

“I’m GLAD | the TWO | of YOU | made UP | and . . . STUFF.”

“You BET. | With-OUT | I-RENE | I’m NOT | my-SELF.”

Rhythm is coordination, and coordination is personality; ergo, rhythm is personality. No two individuals have ever had identical rhythms. The rhythms of spoken English are different from those of spoken French. New York patterns are different from Midwestern or Southern ones. Rhythmic patterns of introversion are different from those of extraversion. The former colonel, the young girl, the tottering shopper, the hipsters, the suburbanite, the blind man, the blind man’s dog—they all have wholly different rhythms, and therefore wholly different personalities. The only thing they share is the fact that their rhythms reflect and even determine their personality.

Rhythm can contribute to health or to disease. The colonel has an arthritic hip joint in part because of his longstanding habits of posture and gait—in other words, habits of rhythm. The young girl has a rhythm of thought and gesture that gives her all the freedom in the world. Bounding upstairs at great speed becomes effortless and fun once you find the right rhythms to do so. Lose those rhythms, however, and you risk falling down and breaking your neck. The principle applies to everything you do and say—and, logically enough, every note you sing, play, and conduct.

It’s such a basic principle that musicians take it for granted, assuming that making music automatically entails some control of rhythm. This is the same attitude that says, “Dancers are so graceful. That’s because they are . . . dancers.” “Restaurant chefs know their ingredients. What do you expect, they are chefs after all.” Needless to say, there exist clumpy dancers, chefs who serve undercooked chicken, crazy psychotherapists, sinful priests, and professional musicians whose sense of rhythm is terrible. There exist long-established ensembles that can’t “play” together: a string quartet in which the cellist drags the tempo, the second violinist rushes, and the first violinist and the violist pull in opposite directions. There exist famous conductors who wave their arms about in such an un-rhythmic fashion that their orchestras and choirs can survive only by ignoring them.

Your musicianly duty is to think, breathe, and live rhythm all day long, developing your mastery of rhythm in speech, locomotion, song and dance, and in every last gesture of yours. INTEGRATED PRACTICE shows you how. Look for it in bookstores starting April, 2011.